$12 Million Bucks Given To White Center Schools

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Bill & Melinda GatesNearly $12 million dollars will soon flow into White Center for schools, courtesy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the public-private partnership Thrive by Five.

The long-awaited investment was announced Wednesdday.

The Gates Foundation alone will spend $9 million this year — $7 million on a new early learning center and another $2 million on services. The initiative is one of the newest and biggest anti-poverty programs to hit the Seattle area in recent years, based on the idea of narrowing the skills gap between kindergartners from low-income and higher-income families.

Other programs have certainly tackled early learning, but the pilot project is striking for its ambition in such a small area. It will offer families support from the time a mother learns she is pregnant to the final step before kindergarten.

“It is kind of like we are a little fishbowl experiment,” said Jeri Finch, director of the Learning Way School and Day Care in White Center. “What we do will impact education for the whole state.”

That’s because White Center is one of only two neighborhoods that will initially receive millions of dollars under the initiative. The idea is to build two models — the other will be in Yakima — for educating infants, toddlers, preschoolers and prekindergarten students in the rest of the state.

After trailing much of the country in early learning programs, the state has been trying to catch up in recent years, and Wednesday’s announcement represents the most dramatic step of that effort to improve the state’s care and education of its youngest children.

For example, less than two years ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire created the Department of Early Learning and this year she asked the Legislature for $2 million to support Wednesday’s initiative.

With all of this new money and attention, Washington now sits among the more progressive states, according to Libby Doggett, executive director of Washington, D.C.-based Pre-K Now.

“I think people are excited, but there is also some caution,” Doggett added, suggesting the state needs to improve its overall standards for early learning.

Another question is how much money will be consumed by administration and how much will go directly to help families.

Wednesday’s announcement is actually the result of more than a year of meetings among neighborhood groups, providers, nurses, public officials and staff from Thrive by Five and the Gates Foundation.White Center

Later this year, construction crews plan to break ground on the 30,000-square-foot Greenbridge Early Learning Center, which will have two Head Start programs, parenting classrooms, teacher-training rooms, play groups, community dinners and English classes.The center is slated to open next year.

The initiative, though, will also spend money reaching out to families in their homes, paying for prenatal care, doulas who speak Somali, Spanish, Mandarin and Vietnamese to help with childbirth and for home visits by nurses and teachers. “They tell us what will best support them, and we want to give them a menu of choices, not a one size fits all,” said John Bancroft, who oversees the development of the new learning site.

The money won’t stop flowing after this year. Overall, the Gates Foundation has committed to spending $90 million on early education in Washington state over 10 years, and some of that money is sure to land in White Center.

Separately, Thrive by Five plans to use federal and state money, private donations and parenting fees to pay for its future work, with a goal of creating a self-sustaining model for children from infancy to age 5 similar to the existing K-12 school network.

In White Center, though, the greatest need may be the most simple: more spots at quality child care centers.

For example, the founders of the Learning Way School recently bought a neighboring house in the hopes of meeting growing demand. All this new grant money will help the school with staff training, and perhaps support more slots to move families off the waiting list.

In 2008, the initiative will create 32 new slots for babies and toddlers, though at the new learning hub, not at private providers.

“I think it is going to allow some of us a little breathing room” financially, the school’s director Finch said.

In the last few years, research has piled up confirming that preschool and early education matter. Studies have linked top quality child care to lower incarceration rates, higher home ownership and lower drug use.

Basically, the research argues that $1 invested in child care now saves society more than $1 later in that child’s life.

“We know that the first five years are critically important in shaping the rest of the life of this child,” said Graciela Italiano-Thomas, head of Thrive by Five.

Now the hard work begins: building a $13 million center, spreading support to a community that is home to more than 30 languages, getting the 3,000 kids from newborns to 5-year-olds in White Center ready for kindergarten, and proving what works.

Program planners already have asked one critical group what works.

“It is the first time anyone asked our opinion,” said Finch, who has worked in child care for the last quarter century.


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